Live, From New York, It’s Your Next Theatre Season

March 19th, 2013 § 13 comments

its_a_new_seasonWith U.S. theatre seasons being announced almost daily, things have been pretty lively around the old Twitter water cooler, with each successive announcement being immediately met with assessments at every level.  How many female playwrights or directors? Is there a range of race and ethnicity among the artists? Is the season safe and predictable or adventurous and enticing? How many new plays, or actual premieres? How many dead writers? How many American playwrights? Any new musicals? The same old Shakespeare plays?

Thanks to social media, what once might have incited some e-mails and calls among friends in the business is now grist for the national mill, and the conversations swing their focus from city to city as rapidly as a new announcement is made. While some of the critiques may strike a more strident tone than I would personally adopt, I have to say that this is evidence of the developing national theatre conscience, under which news of upcoming work is not merely relayed but considered, from a macro rather than micro viewpoint, and not only by artistic directors at conferences or journalists in major media. People are keeping score.

I find this heartening and useful; last year I wrote a column for The Stage in which I declared my belief that the work on U.S. stages must better reflect U.S. society. But even as I applaud every recounting of a season being graded on a variety of balances (gender, race, vintage, etc.), and hope that it informs not only a national conversation but action and change at the local level, I want to strike a note of caution about one of the criteria being applied, specifically: why are so many theatres doing the same plays?

It’s easy if one lives in a major metropolitan area that’s rich in theatre to wonder why certain plays are receiving 10, 15 even 20 productions in a single season, typically works that have been seen in New York, whether on Broadway or off.  We all see the list compiled each fall by TCG and American Theatre magazine; it generates stories about the most popular plays at U.S. theatres and usually mirrors the NYC fare of the past year or two. But at the same time, how many new plays remain unproduced, or receive a premiere and then don’t find their way to other stages?  Have U.S. theatres become ever more safe and New York-centric?

What seems like a herd mentality has a more practical basis. It has been some time since plays have toured the country with any regularity (before the current War Horse, the last significant non-musical tour I recall was Roundabout’s Twelve Angry Men); the days when a play would run a season on Broadway and then tour for a year are long over. So while not-for-profit theatres may have been born in part to offer an alternative to commercial fare that was once available throughout the country, the life of plays has fallen almost exclusively to institutional companies.

Those companies tend to be fairly hyperlocal, drawing the majority of their audience from a 30 to 45 mile radius. This holds true even for larger cities, although they may benefit from some portion of a tourist trade. Generally, only “destination theatres” like Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Canada’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals can lay claim to a wider geographic spread. So while our overview of production may be all inclusive, the communities being served are less transient and more insular than that view.

On top of that, we can’t deny that theatre in New York has a range of media platforms which, even in our online era, few other cities can match. Consequently, a success in New York, or merely a New York production, gets a boost in the eyes of all concerned – theatre staffs, freelance artists, funders, audiences. And as a result, companies which are the major – or only – theatre in their community may feel duty bound to offer those “name” works in their seasons, because their audiences may not have any other opportunity to see them and also because their artistic leadership believes in the quality and value of that work. Of course, in some markets, theatres may compete for these “name” works, especially if they’re accompanied by the name Tony or Pulitzer.

This was brought home to me years ago during my time as managing director of Geva Theatre in Rochester NY. Geva was by far the largest theatre in Rochester; its peers were the former Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, 60 miles to the west, and Syracuse Stage, some 80 miles to the east. Each city had its own theatrical microclimate, with only the smallest sliver of die-hard theatre fans traveling among all three, an effort hampered by a snowfall season that ran from November to April.

Having come from Connecticut theatre, where a daytrip to New York was commonplace for professionals and audience alike, I wasn’t used to working on “last year’s hits” (though Geva’s seasons were certainly much more varied than that). In Connecticut at that time, doing work recently available in NYC was redundant. Frankly, what had been a source of pride at the places I’d worked had become a sign of elitism in my new setting, and I had to adjust my thinking accordingly – a mindset that has stayed with me as I ventured back into Connecticut and then to Manhattan.

This year, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop has been one of those frequently produced plays; on the east coast alone I know of productions in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC without even looking at schedules; I could just look at the Amtrak Northeast Corridor schedule for that rundown. Some might call this copycatting, especially after its Broadway run the prior season, but based upon reviews and reports of sales, The Mountaintop has been meaningful at each venue where it has appeared, presumably without overlapping audiences. And on a personal note, I have to say that even in a production compromised by a labor dispute, I found the Philadelphia incarnation to be even more affecting than the Broadway one.

Even as I lobby for artistic directors to be ever more committed to a wide range of essential criteria, I acknowledge the difficulty of their task. Aside from taking into account the questions I highlighted in the first paragraph, they also have to consider issues like budget, educational commitments, work that might prove especially meaningful to their audience or their community. Many have to do that with only five or six shows in a given season and it may not be possible to hit every desired mark.

A national survey across a range of criteria will certainly show us trends in production at the country’s institutional theatres, and I avidly support such an effort. But as we look theatre by theatre, we might allow, slightly,  for what else could be happening at other theatres in the same city, and perhaps for how each theatre’s season does (or doesn’t) make improvements in diversity year over year. We also have to accept that in meeting one of many goals, a theatre might fall short on another; watching how they trend over time will be the most telling indicator. And while we need more and more platforms for truly new work, if a show with a New York imprimatur is a genuine part of a season striving towards meeting a range of goals, it is not necessarily a cop-out.

A final word for the theatres that face this new scrutiny, from playwright Stephen Spotswood during yesterday’s water cooler chat on Twitter: “Dear theatres whose seasons people are complaining about: This means we care and are invested in you. Start worrying when we stop.”

 

  • Peter Marks

    Like many nuanced issues, the one about copy cat programming is treated far too reductively in 140 character side swipes. But it’s a good thing–no, a great thing–that people on Twitter now have a national platform for challenging the choices companies are making. I’m eager to see how many leaders in the theater establishment address the legitimate questions being raised regularly online. More to the point, I’m eager to see how long before they feel they have no choice but to address them.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      I wonder, Peter, whether the Twitter conversation actually reaches the right people at the theatres. Obviously it depends upon who is managing and monitoring social media, and whether the theatres in questions are named in every tweet. Once upon a time, while both are always attended to, letters seemed to carry more weight than a phone call, because it showed someone had taken the time to reason out their complaint. More importantly, unless other artistic directors and other theatre staffs see/hear the conversation, is it in an echo chamber? I think the conscience is developing; how – and whether – it gets effectively heard remains to be seen.

      • Peter Marks

        Yes, we’re merely at the beginning of this wisdom-sharing (and sometimes not so wise) platform. I suspect that some portion of what’s expressed among the small circles that are coalescing around issues like this one is making its way to higher ups (depending perhaps on who’s doing the expressing and how loudly it’s being declared). I have had some online conversations quoted back to me by leaders in theater, so I know it happens. But at this point, I do think you’re right, at this point there’s more in the way of venting going on than anything else.

  • http://twitter.com/donnahoke Donna Hoke

    As a theatergoer living in Buffalo and only making it to NYC once or twice a year, I appreciate being able to see some of the newer plays I’ve missed. And since Studio Arena closed, rights are available to smaller theaters so we’ve seen some wonderful productions in the past few years. But as a playwright, I want to see more effort given to producing new work. The theater I’m affiliated with, Road Less Traveled, is committed to this even as it enjoys producing Broadway names. Next season, it will produce Race and Clybourne Park, as well as two world premieres, and the regional premiere of An Iliad. If every theater, especially those with healthy subscription bases, would commit to producing at least ONE world premiere in its season, just one, what a much friendlier country it would be for playwrights, and what a much more exciting country it would be for theatergoers who appreciate seeing what’s new instead of what’s allegedly tested.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      RACE and CLYBOURNE PARK in one season? That’s fascinating. As for everyone producing one world premiere a season, I like the idea, but then we’ll have to focus on how we insure all of those premieres get second productions. The cycle continues.

      • http://twitter.com/donnahoke Donna Hoke

        With so many plays not even getting FIRST productions, to me, that’s putting the cart before the horse. This year, that same theater did two world premieres and one revival of a local playwright’s play (From the Mississippi Delta), as well as Circle Mirror and Clean House.

  • http://twitter.com/dloehr David J. Loehr

    What gets me isn’t the copycat season or even the all-new-from-NYC selections. What bugs me are seasons that play it so safe, they’d be considered safe in 1983.

    When my 11 year old son looks at a season’s shows & we realize that just about the only thing he hasn’t seen in some form already is Katori Hall’s play, that’s silly. His reaction to that slate: “I thought they did new stuff.” About an hour later, he came back. “Why would I want to leave the house if I’ve already seen all those?” Granted, he lives in a more theatre-centric home than most, but he’s also the kid who can’t understand why every theatre has to do Christmas Carol every year. “There are other Christmas stories that aren’t on Netflix.” (The kid never ceases to amaze me.)

    I’m not asking for world premieres, I’m not even asking for radical departures. One new show, tried & tested. One that’s fresh from NYC, one that hasn’t gotten there yet–it’s easy to find those through the NNPN and new play festivals around the country. One classic and one modern classic. Maybe one of those is a musical, doesn’t have to be. Five shows, a blend of new and old. Maybe there’s a world premiere, maybe it’s a rolling premiere, maybe it’s a second/third/sixth production. But it’s new to that community.

    If your theatre hosts a new play weekend, week, month, what have you, that’s a bonus. But that shouldn’t be your only vehicle for new work. Try doing one when the world isn’t looking, see how your local audience supports it. For example, “Girlfriend” this winter at Actors Theatre was great fun, audiences seemed to love it. If my company can consistently do new & newer work in a rural community like this, surely a major theatre can manage it more often.

    Of course, if your theatre has “never be dark” programming, inviting more local artists & traveling artists into the building to do new & different work week in, week out, that helps. But just like a new play event, it shouldn’t be an excuse for not doing that kind of work in the company either.

    I think a lot of major theatres underestimate their audiences’ willingness to try new things. But that’s a whole ‘nother post…

  • http://www.theaterwit.org Jeremy Wechsler

    What do you think about the “new to YOUR audience” argument? That might well be a new play, but it could equally be a second (or third or what have you) production.

    I find the framing of this question very muddling. I agree that as an industry, we must keep the new play fires burning, but the execution of that is quite complex. Here, we’ve also ended up with one non-NY production each season but not necessarily a world premiere. In honesty, that’s more an accidental result rather than a tactic.

    Here in Chicago we have a deep bench of local playwrights of extraordinary skill. We’ve presented their work, but I think deliberately trying to balance works by source rather than the plays themselves is a weird place from which to program.

    I’m also always interested in WHICH plays from NY pick up productions. This season, we’re currently presenting Completeness by Itamar Moses (currently with NO other regional productions announced), a new work by Nora Dunn and a Madeline George play that premiered 2 years ago in NY but has not had a rich regional life.

    So, is the counter NY-programming issue an argument against the more “commercial” product? I rarely notice a play that I could call a “commercial” success. Particularly now, when the “success” of Broadway shows is more dependent on the star casting than the material. That being said, Clybourne Park is a fascinating evening at the theatre; it’s subsequent lineup of productions nationwide is deserved.

    Or, is this problem more of a lament about the relative scarcity of production opportunities? A failure of imagination by the artistic leadership? In that case, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is probably more to blame for the loss of new play opportunities over the years than the entire output of NYC :)

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      I’m not making an argument against NY plays; I’m responding to one that I saw from others yesterday. I agree that new to your audience means new, which is why checklists can be deceiving and fail to represent a company’s broader commitment, in this case to new – or recent – work. But I’m also saying that there does need to be more scrutiny overall, because it seems that we’re not making great progress in diversity by race or gender, or creating enough opportunities for new work as a field. You’ll notice that save for my MOUNTAINTOP anecdote, I don’t discuss any plays or theatres, because I’m not trying to call anyone out; even if my thesis is muddled, I’m just hoping to stir some thoughts in the minds of those who have a role in choosing what the theatregoing public has an opportunity to see.

      • http://www.theaterwit.org Jeremy Wechsler

        I don’t think your thesis is muddled; I think the issue is quite complicated, and thus, I’M muddled. :) And twitter is a hard place to find out what people really think.

        Maybe, if NY plays have so much regional cachet, then the problem of diversity can be most efficiently addressed by NY producers. (that’s 45% a joke, but does one Kristoffer Diaz play do more to directly diversify regional programming than 10 new play initiatives?)

        I do think that the scrutiny by our peers is valuable, if only to keep the questions firmly in our minds.

        (I sometimes wonder if twitter upped its character limit to 280 characters, would we benefit from a richer conversation? Diversity and arts expansion through string limits!)

        • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

          I was going to regional theatre before August Wilson’s plays were produced (indeed, I saw a number of them premiere at Yale Rep in the 80s). It’s quite remarkable what the work of a single playwright can do to add diversity nationally. August is proof.

          Indeed, his work suggests an exponential effect, as does that of Kris Diaz, Katori Hall, David Hwang and many more, which is all the more reason to make theatres accountable for making sure they produce writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

          Whether that can happen without a New York production is something the field needs to grapple with, but right now NYC retains the outsized influence it had 50 years ago when the resident/regional theatre movement began in earnest.

          As for letting Tweeters go on longer, I say no. There are some exchanges that work there, but others that belong elsewhere, online and off.

  • Walt McGough

    I think another (albeit more gradual) way for theatre companies to stay ambitious and also make sure their audiences are seeing the best shows available is to start working to add more “centers of gravity” to the conversation than just NYC. Right now, when we talk about regional premieres we’re mostly talking about Plays That Did Well in New York, but why not a Play That Did Well in Chicago, or DC, or Boston? (Or London? Or Berlin? Or Tuscaloosa?) Supporting new play spheres in these cities can have an echo effect, and provide an even broader middle ground of critically-acclaimed but new-to-our-audiences plays for companies to import. A good marketing campaign can sell a play with a rave in the Chicago Tribune just as well as it can a decent-to-good review in the Times, and audience can be convinced by changing the terms of the conversation. With so many platforms (and companies like NNPN) making it easier to stay abreast of the goings-on in cities around the country, it’s getting harder and harder to excuse looking only to New York as the place to find “new” plays for regional premieres.

  • http://www.suilebhan.com/ Gwydion Suilebhan

    I was going to leave a newly-crafted comment, but then I realized I’d already said a few weeks ago what I might have said again here in a comment: http://www.suilebhan.com/2013/01/22/theatrical-biodiversity/